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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Asking For Money

Title:     Asking For Money
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

One of the very best wives and mothers I have ever known once said to me, that, whenever her daughters should be married, she should stipulate in their behalf with their husbands for a regular sum of money to be paid them, at certain intervals, for their personal expenditures. Whether this sum was to be larger or smaller, was a matter of secondary importance,-- that must depend on the income, and the style of living; but the essential thing was, that it should come to the wife regularly, so that she should no more have to make a special request for it than her husband would have to ask her for a dinner. This lady's own husband was, as I happened to know, of a most generous disposition, was devotedly attached to her, and denied her nothing. She herself was a most accurate and careful manager. There was everything in the household to make the financial arrangements flow smoothly. Yet she said to me, "I suppose no man can possibly understand how a sensitive woman shrinks from _asking_ for money. If I can prevent it, my daughters shall never have to ask for it. If they do their duty as wives and mothers they have a right to their share of the joint income, within reasonable limits; for certainly no money could buy the services they render. Moreover, they have a right to a share in determining what those reasonable limits are."

Now, it so happened that I had myself gone through an experience which enabled me perfectly to comprehend this feeling. In early life I was for a time in the employ of one of my relatives, who paid me a fair salary but at no definite periods: I was at liberty to ask him for money up to a certain amount whenever I needed it. This seemed to me, in advance, a most agreeable arrangement; but I found it quite otherwise. It proved to be very disagreeable to apply for money: it made every dollar seem a special favor; it brought up all kinds of misgivings, as to whether he could spare it without inconvenience, whether he really thought my services worth it, and so on. My employer was a thoroughly upright and noble man, and I was much attached to him. I do not know that he ever refused or demurred when I made my request. The annoyance was simply in the process of asking; and this became so great, that I often underwent serious inconvenience rather than do it. Finally, at the year's end, I surprised my relative very much by saying that I would accept, if necessary, a lower salary, on condition that it should be paid on regular days, and as a matter of business. The wish was at once granted, without the reduction; and he probably never knew what a relief it was to me.

Now, if a young man is liable to feel this pride and reluctance toward an employer, even when a kinsman, it is easy to understand how many women may feel the same, even in regard to a husband. And I fancy that those who feel it most are often the most conscientious and high-minded women. It is unreasonable to say of such persons, "Too sensitive! Too fastidious!" For it is just this quality of finer sensitiveness which men affect to prize in a woman, and wish to protect at all hazards. The very fact that a husband is generous; the very fact that his income is limited,--these may bring in conscience and gratitude to increase the restraining influence of pride, and make the wife less willing to ask money of such a husband than if he were a rich man or a mean one. The only dignified position in which a man can place his wife is to treat her at least as well as he would treat a housekeeper, and give her the comfort of a perfectly clear and definite arrangement as to money matters. She will not then be under the necessity of nerving herself to solicit from him as a favor what she really needs and has a right to spend. Nor will she be torturing herself, on the other side, with the secret fear lest she has asked too much and more than they can really spare. She will, in short, be in the position of a woman and a wife, not of a child or a toy.

I have carefully avoided using the word "allowance" in what has been said, because that word seems to imply the untrue and mean assumption that the money is all the husband's to give or withhold as he will. Yet I have heard this sort of phrase from men who were living on a wife's property or a wife's earnings; from men who nominally kept boarding-houses, working a little, while their wives worked hard,--or from farmers, who worked hard, and made their wives work harder. Even in cases where the wife has no direct part in the money-making, the indirect part she performs, if she takes faithful charge of her household, is so essential, so beyond all compensation in money, that it is an utter shame and impertinence in the husband when he speaks of "giving" money to his wife as if it were an act of favor. It is no more an act of favor than when the business manager of a firm pays out money to the unseen partner who directs the indoor business or runs the machinery. Be the joint income more or less, the wife has a claim to her honorable share, and that as a matter of right, without the daily ignominy of sending in a petition for it.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Asking For Money